Supreme Court Poised to Review Civil Rights Laws
Justices to hear cases challenging government efforts to ensure equality in voting, employment at time of national dialogue on race and diversity.
The Supreme Court has an opportunity to reaffirm or reshape the nation's civil rights laws as it faces a rare confluence of cases over the next two weeks, including a high-profile challenge brought by white firefighters who claim they lost out on promotions because of the "color of their skin."
The cases also touch on the Voting Rights Act, the need to provide English classes for immigrant children and, more tangentially, discriminatory mortgage lending. [Because minorities not getting enough mortgage money is a big problem in America in this decade.]
The most emotionally charged case is from the New Haven, Conn., firefighters, whose complaints define the real-life quandary that sometimes accompanies government efforts to ensure racial equality.
The firefighters accuse city officials of violating civil rights laws and the Constitution by throwing out a promotions test on which they performed well but no blacks scored high enough to be eligible. The city responds that relying on test results with such wide racial discrepancies could have violated federal law and left them open to being sued by minorities.
When the results of the 2003 exams came back, only white firefighters, including one who is Hispanic, scored high enough to be considered for the openings for lieutenants and captains. All 27 black firefighters who took the test were below the cutoff.
After tumultuous public hearings, with minority groups arguing that the tests were flawed and the white firefighters saying officials were caving to political pressure, the city's Civil Service Board voted not to certify the results. The promotions remain in limbo.
The city argues that the test it commissioned, in which 60 percent of the score came from a multiple-choice questionnaire and 40 percent from an interview, must have been biased, despite its best intentions. It is not specific about the problems with the test, though it says the exam did not measure "command presence" and should have given more weight to the interview.
At any rate, the city says it was bound by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which requires employers not to rely on hiring or promotional tests that have a "disparate impact" on minorities unless they can show a "business necessity."...
The Obama Justice Department mostly sides with New Haven officials.
Were the test results anomalous? Unlike everybody else commenting on the Ricci case, I've actually calculated the racial gap in standard deviations for the New Haven firefighters' promotion tests and compared them to the racial gap in the Law School Application Test used by a certain law school in New Haven.
More to come ...